But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger.
Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison.
Who led them on? Aunt Helena beams, pleased with us.
She did. She did. She did.
Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen?
Teacher her a lesson. Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson.
Offred--that is, the wife of Fred--is a handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. This is one of few paths available to women, and in many ways the most appealing. She's not a wife, of course, but because she can procreate, there is a certain amount of prestige attached. The job of a handmaid is, essentially, to have sex. For Offred, that means sex with a man known only as the Commander, while his wife sits behind her and grips Offred's hands. The symbolism of the position eliminates the handmaid, preserving the illusion of intimacy between man and wife:
My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he's doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.
The totalitarianism of Gilead is enforced by an Orwellian spy organization called the Eyes, and a system of severe religious instruction, as well as violent force. In one very disturbing scene, Offred and the other women in her community take part in a ceremony called a Salvaging--a bitter pun on the idea of "salvation"--in which they all hoist a rope connected to the noose from which an accused criminal hangs. The smartest totalitarians always know that people will work hard to oppress themselves.
This was a difficult read for me. It took a lot of effort for me to put off my negative reaction to the way that Atwood uses religious language and imagery. She's clearly well-versed in the Bible and employs Biblical literature with great facility, but in Gilead, the most bitter, hateful, and oppressive readings are the prevalent ones. Older women past their childbearing years, for example, are called Marthas, after the hard-working sister of Mary and Lazarus. And if that weren't enough, look what happens to poor John Milton:
I walk to the corner and wait. I used to be bad at waiting. They also serve who only stand and wait, said Aunt Lydia. She made us memorize it. She also said, Not all of you will make it through. Some of you will fall on dry ground or thorns. Some of you are shallow-rooted.
I love Milton's sonnet; I think the parable of the sower, besides being a beautiful piece of literature, is a touching response to persecution and ostracism. It is not particularly comforting to see them turned into tools for the repression of the individual spirit, for the methodical crushing of half the people in the nation.
I found myself responding to The Handmaid's Tale by questioning its plausibility: I don't see a world like this coming about, I thought. And I still don't. But I had to remind myself of something I said years ago, probably about 1984: Dystopian novels aren't necessarily predictions, or even warnings, but mirror images of life as we live it now, with the evils that we overlook magnified so large that we cannot overlook them anymore.
And truthfully, America too often resembles The Handmaid's Tale. I do not imagine that women of the future will be formally trained to heap shame upon rape victims in classroom settings, but such victims are blamed for their own rapes far too often in this very day and age. I do not imagine that the future government will want--or have the power--to reduce women to procreative vessels by law, but the association of woman with body/matter and man with mind/spirit is a part of our cultural heritage that remains deeply ingrained in the way we think about sex and gender. I was affected by Offred's disnatured conception of her own body:
I can listen to my own heartbeat against the bedsprings, I can stroke myself, under the dry white sheets, in the dark, but I too am dry and white, hard, granular; it's like running my hand over a plateful of dried rice; it's like snow. There's something dead about it, something deserted. I am like a room where things once happened and now nothing does, except the pollen of the weeds that grow up outside the window, blowing in as dust across the floor.
After a while, Offred begins to make illicit visits to the Commander, in which she's allowed to engage in forbidden activities, like playing scrabble and reading old copies of Vogue. These meetings aren't sexual--the Commander has that from Offred already--but a sad imitation of real human intimacy, which they both yearn for. Men, Atwood points out, are not immune from the deadening effects of religious and sexual oppression, though she never lets us forget about the Commander's immense power over Offred and his role in the larger system. The relationship is as fraudulent as it is transitory--either Offred will conceive and retire as a feted success, or fail to conceive and be disgraced, possibly sent into exile. There is a third way, of course, that might help her reunite with her lost husband--a path to Canada known as, no joke, the Underground Femaleroad. As Offred says, "There wasn't a lot of choice, but there was some."
I came around to The Handmaid's Tale because I realized that part of my negative reaction was that there were aspects of the novel that I was happier not to think about. It didn't strike me as rich as the dystopias of 1984 or Brave New World, or as frightening. But then again, if I were a woman, perhaps that would be quite different. That's something, I remind myself, worth keeping in mind.